Age before beauty, a pearl before swine

MUSIC; Isaac Stern / Barbican Anne-Sophie Mutter /RFH
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The Independent Culture
Opportunities for the compare and contrast game are rarely so convenient - at least on paper. At the Barbican, the English Chamber Orchestra was helping celebrate veteran violinist Isaac Stern's 75th birthday, while over at the Royal Festival Hall, Anne-Sophie Mutter was the star billing in the Motorola-sponsored Violin Series, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Both series mixed violin concertos with purely orchestral works, and by accident or design, both featured Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. The Philharmonia performed it with a conductor, Semyon Bychkov; the English Chamber Orchestra took the bolder step of doing it without.

So, a vindication of the role of the conductor? The answer seems to be yes and no, but with the "yes" votes probably in the majority. The ECO performance ran smoothly on the whole, and it certainly didn't lack character. There was a lightness in its approach which led to some lovely things - the sudden luscious flowering of the finale's very simple second tune, for instance. In his more uncorsetted moods, Stravinsky would almost certainly have approved. But the Bychkov / Philharmonia version had more rhythmic vigour, and Stravinsky's abrupt changes of gear sounded more confident. The ECO didn't falter technically at these tricky corners but it was often a moment or two before everybody sounded completely at ease with the new tempo.

Bychkov's decision to place Stravinsky's string solo group in front of the main orchestra (I presume it was Bychkov's decision) made acoustic sense. In the Barbican, Stravinsky's specific division of musical labour wasn't nearly so apparent. That's the kind of effective decision that's more likely to be reached by an individual (the conductor) than by a co- operative (the orchestral principals).

Comparing the two violinists, though, is harder. In his Seventies Isaac Stern has been showing variable form. At his best, he can still be uniquely inspired and inspiring, and in Bach's A minor Violin Concerto there were reminders of the fine old school of cultivated American musicianship that he has come to embody. But technically he was some way below average. Intonation and tone were shaky - as in Mozart's Third Concerto after the interval - and there was a major disagreement about tempo at the first solo entry in the Bach (quickly compensated for by the ECO players).

Anne-Sophie Mutter's performance of the Prokofiev First Concerto, on the other hand, was surprisingly unsympathetic. She and conductor Bychkov also seemed to have clashing ideas about tempo in the usually glorious, airborne opening tune. Later she showed much more enthusiasm for the aggressive "diabolic" side of the work than for Prokofiev's generous lyricism. It was a hard, cold, even slightly alarming experience.

The one wholly positive memory from this week was in fact Bychkov and the Philharmonia's performance of Berio's Sinfonia, with the virtuoso voices of Electric Phoenix. The modernist 1960s may have produced vast quantities of cold, inhuman, pretentious detritus, but there is a handful of works which almost justify the Great Experiment. Berio's Sinfonia is one of them. Yes, you have to do a little preparatory reading (a good programme note should be enough) if you are to follow Berio's multi-layered musical and literary references. But even if you don't, the inventiveness of Berio's writing can still hold your attention, and the jokes in the Mahler-based third movement can still be funny and disturbing at the same time.

While other composers agonised in words over the impossible position of the modern composer, faced with that great, intimidating tradition of Western classical music, Berio wrote a piece of music about it - which in many ways has gained in relevance. Electric Phoenix and the orchestra gave a performance that radiated conviction, and Bychkov shaped and balanced it very effectively. There was some enthusiasm in the auditorium at the end, but also giggling and grumbling during the performance. Some people, it seems, just don't want their consciousness expanded.

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